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Breaking down the Bard

Shakespeare Liberation Army sets out to make Elizabethan playwright's works accessible to the Southwest masses


by: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Shakespeare Liberation Army players William Lund III, Aimé Kelly and Robert Power-Drutis rehearse for an upcoming performance with
their supporting players: puppets.William Shakespeare of the foremost playwrights in history. To a lay modern audience, however, his oeuvre can be pretty inscrutable Luckily for Southwest Portland, a local theater troupe known as the Shakespeare Liberation Army is on a mission to change all that.

The Shakespeare Liberation Army (SLA) got its start in 2007, when the daughter of Multnomah Arts Center faculty members Dawn Panttaja and Timothy Scarrott was about to attend a performance of Hamlet at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.

“Timothy wanted to write Hamlet in a way that she would understand it,” Panttaja said.

“It was originally conceived from a need to educate these guys' child,” said fellow player Aimé Kelly, “and through that child’s need, we figured, ‘Well, heck, we’ll mount it as a free performance.’”

This is the Shakespeare Liberation Army’s project: to boil down scripts from Shakespeare’s classic works and insert an internal narrative in current colloquial English that “helps explain what’s going on in the play,” Kelly said. “It’s like an aside, but it’s a break of staging.” These one-hour performances are called “Over the Cliff Notes.”

Over time, the SLA has expanded its repertoire and honed its technique; always, Kelly said, with “the intention to have a good time together, to work on it, to bring Shakespeare to audiences of younger generations, and make it playful. ”

“And,” deadpanned player William Lund III, “to skip over the parts we hate.”

The approach seemed to work.

“It does reach across to people who don’t like theater,” Panttaja said.

“It became clear, through audience feedback, that what we were doing was more than just having a good time and presenting a play,” Kelly said. “We were actually reaching children.”

“We do have kids who are very young who walk away (from SLA performances) both interested in Shakespeare and fully understanding one of the main themes,” said player Robert Power-Drutis. “Even if we don’t produce a show that is traditional theater and traditional Shakespeare, at the very least we have young kids who don’t hate Shakespeare and might be willing to go see a full production later on.”by: CONNECTION PHOTO: DREW DAKESSIAN - Shakespeare Liberation Army players William Lund III and Timothy
Scarrott get caught up in the Bard's words while fellow player Dawn Panttaja looks on.

Each year, the Portland Office of Neighborhood Involvement sponsors the Neighborhood Small Grants Program, giving out approximately $94,000 for community projects in Portland’s seven neighborhood districts. Eager to make the most of its ability to provide young Southwest Portlanders with an understanding of the Bard’s work, the SLA applied for a grant through its local neighborhood coalition office, Southwest Neighborhoods, Inc., and won.

The troupe used that grant and an additional windfall from the non-profit Multnomah Arts Center Association, to stage a workshop at Jackson Middle School, first performing for the school and then spending the week in residency teaching a class of 32 sixth-graders the tragedy of “Macbeth.” In rotating groups of 10 to 12 students, the troupe helped the preteens translate the Scottish Play, understand its subtext and stage scenes from it — complete with puppets.

Now, they are taking on another marginalized segment of Southwest: senior citizens.

As teachers at the Multnomah Arts Center, “We came in occasionally to do some extra work backstage, and I saw a bunch of seniors sitting around in the auditorium eating, and I thought, ‘We should do a show for them’,” Scarrott recalled.

“Seniors were, for me, the other side of the spectrum of the underserved population,” Kelly explained. “We thought, why not try the other hand. We had this community in our own building.”

Performances for seniors, including a rendition of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" May 16, will be delivered in much the same way as for middle school students, with trademark Shakespeare Liberation Army mirth.

“The only change we’ll make,” Lund said, “is we’re louder.”

See it for yourself

A special senior luncheon followed by a free performance of

"Over the Cliff Notes" on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" takes place May 16, 11 a.m., Multnomah Arts Center Auditorium, 766 SW Capitol Highway.

For more information, call 503-828-2787.